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The anomie of the information superhighways

Originally published in 1995
Re-read and commented in January 2023

Rinckside 2023; 34,1: 1-2.

wenty-eight years ago I wrote a column about “the drawbacks of the information autobahn.” In the meantime a new generation has grown up, smartphones dominate over most of the global population — many people are completely addicted to and dependent on them. Life without them seems (and in many cases is) impossible [1].

From the 1995 column [2]:

“Those using the superhighways are singing the praises of this new tool. Like highways for automobiles, the information superhighways or data autobahns are great, wide, fast roads that are free or inexpensive. In medicine, it seems that many problems can be eased by this technology.

“Attending conferences, reading magazines, or watching television can give the impression that computers and Internet will solve every conceivable question. In medicine, computers contribute to a patient's faster and better recovery. The patient's medical history is available on Internet. E-mail makes the health system cheaper.”

>Has the overwhelming enthusiasm of 1995 given way to more sobering thoughts, has the perspective changed?

For users of technology and information, the prospects are mostly fascinating. Much has been said and written about the new possibilities, the irrelevance of distance and difficult access, and the dream future of democratic distribution of information.

The promise was of easy and free (or, at least, very cheap) access to the information superhighways for all. A student of mine told me that it does not cost anything, but he is not in charge of paying the university's budget; he did not have to buy the hardware and software he uses.

"The promise was of easy and free access
to the information superhighways for all."

Just as the 19th century had its railroad barons, the late 20th and 21th centuries had and have their information superhighway barons, making millions of dollars out of high tech­no­logy — hardware, software, and most importantly, fees.

Easy and free access is a public relations slogan. Access still depends on availability of equipment, connections and networks which are not necessarily cheap or easy for every­body. The concept of easy and free access assumes the prior availability and under­stand­ing of the supporting technology.

Will all the world's information be accessible? Of course not. This is another marketing slogan.

The superhighways will convey only information from those computers linked to the system — if you can find it because the internet is chaotic. Other information will not be easily accessible. On the other hand, whatever information is on the highway can hardly be protected any more.

Copyright does not count, and intellectual theft has become increasingly widespread and can hardly be punished. Who is enforcing the laws? Who is heaping up riches [3]?

Is it really necessary for everybody to participate in the information society? It is claimed that if you do not become a member, you will be isolated. And, yes — in the meantime you will be. Banking, long-distance (or even short-distance) telephone calls, picture taking … all of this is done on smartphones today.

However, there is another point of view: you become isolated as a member of the information society because you start living in an artificial world fenced in by computers. In other words, you degenerate into data autism. This leads to the next potential problem of dependency and habit, whereby the user becomes so used to or dependent on the technology that the options or alternatives are no longer considered.

Given easy and free access, is the point going to be reached where people only communicate through computer networks?

In 1995 the question arose: Will, for example, congresses and other scientific meetings become obsolete? Users of the superhighways are able to order tickets for travel and entertainment from home, but will there really be any need for tickets? From their computers, users can connect to wherever they want to go to and to whatever they want to hear or see.

The Covid pandemic taught us to introduce hybrid conferences or smaller, really scientific meetings. Meanwhile we rushed into the age of video-sharing platforms such as Zoom and Skype. It's feasible to switch from an onsite to an online meeting format and still meet most of the goals of a conventional medical conference, but to do so is challenging, the European Society of Radiology conceded [4]:

"Many of the necessary techniques are well established. Recording and streaming of conference sessions for later on-demand viewing has been offered by some societies (including the ESR) for some years. Live webinars are common educational tools. However, a full congress is a more complex proposition, involving a variety of session types, aimed at diverse types of attendees, with many different forms of interaction between speakers and delegates."

Another questions was: Will books or the printed media in general disappear, as some people predict? Will all scientific information be provided through the computer? We found out: no. Books might be better suited [5].

Incidentally, articles in printed journals published 10, 20, or 100 years ago can easily be read, but can a computer access and decipher diskettes that are 10 years old? Probably not, because reading them is as difficult as deciphering the Dead Sea scrolls.

Another point often overlooked is that the information society is based on permanent change. What was taken for granted yesterday will change today. The high-technology wonderland needs permanent change to earn money, and it is big business. It does not create new thoughts or new mental results, but it offers solutions for new vehicles to transport, transform and store information. These vehicles are consumer goods that will be obsolete in five years.

The possible drawbacks must be kept in mind. We must do this for our own good and to keep alive the different and independent cultures that are the backbones of our civilization.

Thirty years later: Is life easier now? I don’t know. Is it less complicated? Oh, no. Is it cheaper? Definitely not.


1. Rinck PA. Smartphones don't upgrade your brain. Rinckside 2016; 27,4: 9-10.
2. Rinck PA. Drawbacks of the information autobahn. Rinckside 1995; 6,3: 9-11.
3. Rinck PA. Science publishers — the beginning of the end? Rinckside 2016; 27,2: 5-6.
4. Rinck PA. Congresses — a feeling of uncertainty. (II) A case in point: ECR and the Corona fallout. Rinckside 2020; 31,5: 9-10.
5. Rinck PA. An expensive dilemma: Tablets versus textbooks. Rinckside 2015; 26,7: 17-19.

Citation: Rinck PA. Re-read: The anomie of the information superhighways. Rinckside 2023; 34,1: 1-2.

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